I've seen quite a bit of the TV series MASH, but it's only now that I've gotten around to seeing the film that preceded it. Surprisingly, just before watching this I realized I've never seen a Robert Altman film before, despite him having been one of the most acclaimed of American directors with a large body of work (some of which is, apparently, shite). The second surprise I had was discovering that the wonderful theme music from the TV show is actually a song, Suicide is Painless.
Getting things back on track, MASH is a black comedy set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (or... MASH!) during the Korean War. It revolves primarily around three clownish new surgeons who arrive at the MASH unit, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper (Elliott Gould), and Duke (Tom Skerritt). There's a large ensemble cast, and the film is essentially about the interactions of all the characters and the various things that happen at the hospital - there's no conventional narrative. Despite being shot and presented in a serious and realistic manner, the film is unquestionably a comedy in pretty much every scene, even in the somewhat graphic surgery scenes, where the surgeons continue to crack wise while cutting and chopping.
I've read that the film is anti-war, but I didn't get a strong anti war vibe while watching it. It's certainly full of anti-establishment humour, and the frequent sight of bloody soldiers leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the horrific nature of war, but certainly no overt message was present. Perhaps it's so subtle that it went over my head (which wouldn't surprise me).
I wasn't blown away by the film, but I was impressed, and will definitely be checking out more of Altman's films. The often overlapping dialogue is smart, funny, and fast paced, and was apparently largely improvised. The cast list features some big names and some more obscure actors, all of whom are good to great. Sutherland, Gould, and Robert Duvall were the standouts for me. As a brief aside, Sutherland on more than one occasion was reminiscent of a tall Jack Bauer, which I found amusing. I half expected him to start yelling "TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB IS", something the good natured fellow that is Hawkeye would never do! Also, is it just my imagination or does Rene Auberjonois always look roughly the same age on screen, no matter the era of the film he appears in?
I wouldn't call it brilliant, but it's definitely worth watching, especially for someone like me who enjoyed watching the TV series. I don't fully get what all the fuss is about, but it's hailed as a classic, so what do I know? It is very funny, and is certainly entertaining...